Wed, Jan 14, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Isolationism or engagement: which path will Obama take?

The president-elect inherits a system in which Americans are tired of defending global liberty while writhing faces on the TV keep spewing hatred for the US

By Richard Halloran

The clues are scattered, but they add up to a stark conclusion: Americans are tired of their contentious engagement with the rest of the world.

Americans are tired of carrying what they see as the burden of defending the peace; they are tired of seeing their sons and daughters, 120,000 of them, die in military action since World War II; they are tired of being taxed to pay for wars.

And they are tired of writhing faces on TV spewing hatred for the US. When those people shout: “Yankee, go home,” many Americans would like to reply: “Stop the world, we want to get off.”

US president-elect Barack Obama may be aware of this fatigue, having campaigned on a promise of hope. Whether he confronts this weariness in his inaugural address will reveal much about his administration. So will the testimony of secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton in Senate confirmation hearings.

The signs of fatigue show up in poll after poll: One says only 13 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going; in another, 64 percent say the US is on the wrong track. Of the looming conflict between India and Pakistan, 81 percent say the US should stay out. In the clash between Israelis and Arabs, 51 percent say hands off. Iraq, 64 percent say, is not worth fighting for.

Of the UN, 65 percent are saying it does a poor job. Free trade agreements, 61 percent say, cause Americans to lose jobs. Another 56 percent contend that the US spends too much on foreign aid. National defense spending, 44 percent assert, is too high.

The lack of US interest in foreign affairs is reflected in declining international news coverage except for eruptions. A survey showed extensive reporting on the financial crisis, Obama, the political shenanigans of the Illinois governor, and problems in the auto industry — but little from outside the US. US travel abroad has also leveled off.

Isolationism has deep roots in the US. Former presidents George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson warned against “entangling alliances.” The US kept much to itself until the Spanish-American War of 1898 and World War I in 1917-1918. Not until World War II did the US really come out of its isolationist shell. The fundamental security posture of the postwar period was set by a National Security Council document called NSC-68 drawn up in then US president Harry Truman’s administration. It set diplomatic, economic and military foundations for containing the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991.

After the Korean War ended in 1953, the high point of the US’ stance was set by then president John Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

That seemingly unlimited commitment, however, lasted only eight years. President Richard Nixon, seeing the US bogged down in Vietnam, declared the US would provide a nuclear shield over nations vital to US security. Beyond that, he said: “We shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.”

President Jimmy Carter in 1980 was slightly more expansive on potential threats to oil resources near the Persian Gulf: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

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